Time for states to demand transparency on foreign influences at their universities

FPI / May 29, 2020

By Christopher W HoltonCenter for Security Policy, May 29, 2020

Recent revelations of U.S. professors serving as foreign agents for China has raised serious questions about just who is paying for access to the minds of America’s youth and established a renewed focus on how foreign funding is corrupting higher education. In particular, state legislatures must exercise their oversight role and insist on full transparency and disclosure when it comes to foreign funding of colleges and universities.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Institutions of higher education are no strangers to various groups providing funding for reasons of self-interest. Funding sources can inhibit the independence and autonomy of academia because — as much as higher education would like to dispute it — we all know that big donors generally have at least some ability to determine how benefactors use the money they donate.

When funding comes from foreign entities — whether wealthy individuals, organizations, corporations, royal families or governments, including despotic regimes — the potential for influence can be even more disturbing.

Obviously, to regard all or even most foreign donations to America’s colleges or universities as somehow nefarious would be a serious mistake. America’s universities — with their superb curricula and research in science, medicine, agriculture, engineering and other fields — justifiably benefit from the financial support of America’s foreign friends and allies, many of whom have benefited directly from the technical expertise developed in these institutions.

On the other hand, there are also reasonable grounds to suspect that some foreign gifts may be intended to purchase undue influence over the way in which highly controversial subjects are treated in American university lecture halls.

Communist China’s Influence Operations

In the midst of the Wuhan virus pandemic and several scandals involving U.S. universities and relations with China, there has been renewed scrutiny on foreign influence of our higher education.

The “Thousand Talents” plan was designed to use Communist Chinese government funding to attract top research talent to China from universities in other countries, particularly the U.S. The program has been fraught with problems, resulting in everything from fraud to waste to outright theft.

The U.S. Senate investigated the program and determined that the Thousand Talents program was a threat to U.S. national security.

Numerous participants have frequently failed to disclose their participation in the plan to their employers and some have also committed theft of intellectual property. One Thousand Talents Plan participant stole information on U.S. military jet engines.

Then there are the Confucius Institutes, which exist on scores of U.S. campuses. They are fully funded by China’s Ministry of Education and are supposed to promote the education of Chinese language and culture. But accompanying that perhaps reasonable goal, according to Human Rights Watch, Confucius Institutes bring with them the Chinese Communist culture of state censorship and political hiring practices.

As Campus Reform Editor-in-Chief Cabot Phillips recently told Fox News’ Shannon Bream, “…the Chinese minister of propaganda openly admits they are propaganda centers hoping to influence the curriculums on campus and to make sure they’re controlling the narrative around the Chinese government.”

Fortunately, dozens of our universities have closed down Confucius Institutes on their campuses. Hopefully, they will all be closed—and soon. But will appeal to the greed of academia allow these Communist outposts to persist on U.S. college campuses? There’s reason to be skeptical that the Chinese recent bad behavior will provoke reforms.

While China’s behavior has raised new issues regarding the extent of foreign corruption of higher education, concerns about this risk are not new. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many suggested the need for further disclosure of contributions, gifts and contracts made from foreign governments, corporations, foundations and individuals to America’s colleges and universities. That prompted the state of New York to pass a law requiring such disclosure.

Contributions made to universities by foreign governments, entities, and persons came under heightened scrutiny, especially some made from Islamist foundations whose active denial of the Holocaust and outspoken anti-Semitic views caused public outrage. Some contributions funded university-sponsored Islamic centers, whose denunciation of US foreign policies, support for the application of Shariah law in the US and lack of condemnation against calls for “jihad” against Americans was worrisome at the very time the United States was engaged in a global war against the very ideology being promoted by these programs.

Harvard Law School even established a Shariah Law and Shariah Finance section while also receiving tens of millions of dollars from royalty in Islamic nations, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. And while foreign funding recipients routinely argue they are not impacted by the views of their donors, that’s clearly not always the case.

Large foreign donations were influencing courses at British universities, according to a 2009 report, entitled “A Degree of Influence,” from the Centre for Social Cohesion. Money from foreign donors came with strings attached, and dangerously so, according to research that claimed that foreign governments had corrupted British universities and threatened their academic impartiality. Robin Simcox, the report’s author, said that foreign donors that gave enough money got a say in how things were run. “Edinburgh and Cambridge received £8m each from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia to set up Islamic studies centers,” he said. “He got to appoint as many as three or five members of the management committee.”

When foreign donations and funding find their way into taxpayer-supported public colleges and universities, the public has a right to know where the foreign donations and funding are coming from, to what purpose they are directed, and what strings are attached.

Elected officials and other policymakers have a duty to see to it that there is full public disclosure on all aspects of such donations. That disclosure can also help elected officials and policymakers determine if the funding is appropriate.

At the very least, there must be full transparency of these kinds of foreign funding programs—and that disclosure must reach those closest to the universities who are able to exercise oversight—namely state legislatures.

Two glaring examples have appeared due to the Wuhan virus pandemic. Both the University of Alabama and the University of North Texas partnered with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of the communist Chinese labs at the center of the genesis of the pandemic. How did this partnership come about? What was involved? Did funds change hands? These are questions that taxpayers have the right to know and the state legislatures in Alabama and Texas need to insist on disclosure and transparency.

Universities that receive federal funding must already report foreign gifts to the Department of Education. However, federal enforcement has been poor to non-existent.

Fortunately, some states have taken the initiative to ensure transparency close to home, where elected officials and policymakers are able to exercise proper oversight, by passing laws requiring that their public colleges and universities disclose foreign funding. The purpose of these laws is to promote transparency in government on the state level and ensure disclosure of all financial arrangements and relationships to the taxpayers and elected officials.

States that have passed foreign donation disclosure laws besides New York include Utah and Louisiana.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant, especially for taxpayer-funded public entities. Any foreign donation to a taxpayer-supported public college or university that cannot be disclosed to the public probably should not be accepted in the first place. Foreign gifts disclosure laws allow for the sun to shine on significant foreign contributions made to our public colleges and universities by requiring public disclosure of gifts from foreign governments, entities and individuals to state colleges and universities.

These laws simply require public disclosure of these foreign gifts. They in no way discourage legitimate donations from foreign governments, entities or individuals; they merely mandate that the donations to state colleges and universities be made transparent and disclosed to the public. Public disclosure is the check and balance that will ensure that our taxpayer-supported public colleges and universities will not accept gifts or contributions that are not publicly defendable or in the best interests of the country, state or university.

The time has come for every state legislature to pass these needed disclosure laws to safeguard the integrity of our colleges and universities.

Christopher Holton is Vice President for Outreach at the Center for Security Policy.